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Master's Student Revives Cultural Traditions to Improve the Makah Tribe's Health

Makah Whale HuntersMakah Whale HuntersIt may look like a traditional Makah canoe race, but to Leanna Wilson, it is gritty, serious business.

"There are 12 of us in the canoe at a time, no life preservers…we count on the buddy system, knowing if we mess up on our switching we could tip the canoe over and get wet and cold," Wilson says. "We have to concentrate, work together as a team and pull together until the race is done."

But the goal for this race is a little different than most. Wilson herself is a Makah and a registered nurse who is earning a master's degree in the University of Washington School of Nursing's Acute Care Rural Nurse Practitioner Program via the distance learning option. Two years ago she began to work for the tribe as a diabetic educator and coordinating nurse on its coastal reservation in the isolated northwestern tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. She realized that faded cultural traditions could improve the health of a people that had once been known as a "running tribe." Soon she had Makahs taking hikes, like their ancestors, through the Olympic mountains.

"Bringing that history up stimulated people to keep their culture alive by keeping up a healthy attitude," Wilson says. And they revived the tradition of journeying in outrigger canoes from the mainland to Tatoosh Island, a historic site nearly a mile off the coast. Members of the canoe club-who range in age from teens to older adults-landed on the island at the same spot seen in photos from two centuries ago.

Wilson also has tried to improve eating patterns that have been heavy on fish and light on fresh vegetables. Young Makahs are now being trained to smoke, dry and prepare fish for trade with farmers in Sequim. "They are so excited to get fish; we are excited to get something besides fish!" Wilson says. "We now have an open market next to our only grocery store where everybody exchanges things."

Wilson's spirit of innovation doesn't surprise those who know her. She is "a real doer, not a bookworm," points out Eleanor Bond, Professor of Biobehavioral Nursing and Health Systems at the School of Nursing. After growing up on the impoverished reservation, Wilson decided that a career in nursing could enable her to have an important impact on poor people's lives. Grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs helped Wilson attend college, and she graduated from Whitworth College in Spokane. Then she worked for eight years on the Aleutian Islands and for nearly a dozen years at Forks Hospital, on the western part of the Olympic Peninsula. "I always wanted to become a P.A. or A.R.N.P.," she says, "but it wasn't possible until I heard about the UW distance learning program." Wilson now lives in Port Angeles, where her youngest daughter, Patricia, 17, will graduate from high school next year. In fact, mother proudly points out that she and all three daughters will earn degrees in 2004: Shanna, 25, (a Peninsula College nursing degree, to add to her bachelor's), and Nora, 22, (a bachelor's in psychology and biology from Eastern Washington University).

Wilson's future hopes include expansion of her vital efforts on diabetes education and prevention to include more tribes-the Hoh, Lapush, Quileute and others. But the people are scattered throughout the peninsula in small villages. Jokes the instigator of hikes and canoe journeys: "I want to do this in a hovercraft."


Makah whale hunters land their canoe at Neah Bay, Wash., in 1900. Carved cedar dugout canoes traveled miles out into the open ocean for whale hunting, fishing and trading trips.